GALLERY: From field to fork - little porkers

The plight of our pigs has been highlighted in Jamie Oliver's high-profile campaign, but a co-operative here has been quietly breeding happy, free-range porkers for some time now.

"I like Elsie best," proclaims eight-year-old Freya Harris, before throwing her favourite girl potato peelings from her bucket. "She makes the best babies."

Freya is quite right, of course. Elsie is rather good at making babies, this her third litter.

She is a great mother too, somehow managing without fuss to suckle her 14 piglets on 12 teats, making sure the two runts of the litter thrive along with the others.

Freya, who lives in Chichester, a pupil at Kingsham Primary School, is not so sure about Burdock though, the dad of all these cute squealers who poke their little heads out of their sty, looking warily at all the mud surrounding their home.

"He's a big bully, and I'm a bit frightened of him," she says.

She does have a point again. Burdock does look fairly scary, solitary rooting around under trees that are barren skeletons now but in the summer glorious plum and apricot trees, forming a picturesque orchard and an ideal pig playground.

Elsie and Burdock won't know it, but they are luckier than a lot of pigs. Plenty, as Jamie Oliver discovered in his Jamie Saves Our Bacon campaign on television last month, live distressed lives in cramped conditions before being carted off to the slaugherhouse, producing cheap but tasteless meat.

These animals though, looked after by a small co-operative committed to supporting humanely-reared rare breed pigs, live in large outdoor paddocks on soil, with plenty of shade and room to move about.

They grow, unlike many of their unfortunate cousins, at a natural rate, resulting in pork that has a greater depth of flavour. They are fed on high-quality, non GM feed which they supplement by rooting to their heart's content.

The permanent pedigree herd residing at Aldingbourne Country Centre, with a sister project at Walberton, consists of four breeding sows - Rosie, Bella and Lavender (Saddlebacks) and Elsie (an Oxford Sandy and Black) - and Burdock, the Saddleback boar.

Young Freya may be a tad intimidated by Burdock, but for Mark Stables, founder of the Sussex Saddlebacks co-operative he is 'a fine figure of a man'.

"He is pretty rare," says Mark. "There are only about ten like him in existence."

This is a source of pride to Mark and was important to the 5,000 Social Enterprise Award the co-op was given by West Sussex Country Council in 2006 which helped kick-start the project.

The owners - around 20 people from diverse backgrounds and jobs - also work alongside adults with learning difficulties, clients of the Aldingbourne Trust, adding a social inclusion element; and Mark would like to work with schools too.

But what is it about the pigs that have attracted this enthusiastic crew who have a rota system for feeding and cleaning, and don wellies for regular work days that can leave them caked in mud?

"The thing we all have in common is that we love pigs. You have got to like pigs and be committed to doing something as a group," says Mark.

"The temperament of the pigs is pretty easy going usually and you can get them to roll over to stroke their tummy sometimes."

For Mark, as for many of the others, it is a great de-stresser too, to be out in the open with the animals after sitting at a desk all day.

It has been hard work though. The group had to clear a very overgrown area at the back of the country centre, full of 6 foot high brambles and weeds, to form eight paddocks, before building the snug sties and erecting fences and runs.

With 4,000 a year for food just one of their running costs, the project had to be sustainable, although it is a not-for-profit one.

Around 55 pigs a year are sent to an abattoir in Henfield to be slaughtered - when they are six months old - then come back to be butchered locally. Whole and half pigs are then sold.

"The pork is great. You can't easily buy pork like that," says Mark. "It has brilliant crackling, and makes lovely sausages."

The pork already has many fans including a group of city gents who have formed a Pig Club, enjoying Sussex Saddleback's meat and buying into an emotional connection with the countryside.

Young Freya is a fan of pork crackling too, although she feels 'a bit sad' about the pigs being slaughtered.

Her mum Lorraine, though, is pleased this 'field to fork' lesson has been such a fun and fruitful family venture.

Sussex Saddlebacks, The Aldingbourne Trust, Aldingbourne; email sussexsaddlebacks@gmail.com. To order pork contact Sue Livett on 01243 544607 or Mark Stables on 0777 1654172.

Why we love pigs

Members of the co-operative tell us why they got involved in the scheme

"For me, it's about the animals"

Retired policeman Mark Hillman has always juggled his job with agricultural sidelines.

"I was in farming before I joined the police, and I have had a flock of sheep at Arundel, chickens at my home in Fishbourne, and bees," he said.

When he left work, here was an opportunity to really help give animals a good life.

"It was a chance to produce free range pork as kindly as possible. For me, it's about the animals; I am not that bothered about the meat. Pigs are nice creatures to deal with."

One of Mark's roles is transporting pigs to the abattoir as he has a trailer on his 4x4.

"I just drop them off. I don't stay, but we are happy that it is a good abattoir and they do things humanely."

"It's a destresser"

His day job is in marketing, but Alan Harris, of Chichester, loves to get out in the fresh air with the pigs whenever he can.

"It's a destresser, and we have been through a real learning process," he says. "But we are giving the pigs a very natural habitat to snuffle around in. It's a lovely environment for them."

His wife Lorraine first found out about the scheme at a calligraphy class with the wife of founder Mark Stables.

"It sounded really interesting, especially with the learning disability involvement. And having a young child (Freya is her daughter) it was a chance to teach her where food comes from," she explains.

"They are happy pigs"

He doesn't have a favourite pig, but Guy Clifford who is property manager with Chichester City Council, finds it therapeutic being among them.

"It's relaxing really, to be doing something completely different, away from the office environment," he says.

He became involved when Mark approached him on an allotment, asking if he would like to buy half a pig.

Now he is up at Aldingbourne once a week on 'feeding and watering' duty.

"They have a good life. They are not travelling far and they come back to be butchered locally. You know where your food's been."

"I can't eat our pigs!"

Sue Livett has more of an emotional attachment to the pigs.

To stop breeding sow Lavender, who wasn't producing any piglets, from 'going off to make sausages', she sponsored her.

And, when it comes to eating the pork, she can't tuck into an animal she has helped look after, so she swaps her meat with the butcher's.

"I am a city girl, brought up in the city, but I love these animals. Look at them - they are in mud, they are healthy, and we don't give them any chemicals. It couldn't be better for them," says Sue, Aldingbourne's managing director.

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